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Dealing With Coronavirus Reveals Our Cultural Differences

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, March 12

After starting out as a local public health concern in China, the coronavirus epidemic has morphed into one of the biggest global economic and political threats of our time. It also highlighted the way in which affected countries are dealing with the virus, revealing the true nature of our political regimes. At the time of this writing, four nations in the world have been hardest struck by the epidemic: China, Iran, South Korea, and Italy. The various methods through which these countries have dealt with the virus reveal the nature of their political systems and cultural environments. In China, the initial reaction was to ignore everything and obscure it by denying a pandemic. It is well known that the culture of secrecy is prevalent in Chinese politics and society. This logic holds that if knowledge is power, then knowledge must be monopolized by the ruling revolutionary regime. Therefore, it took weeks for the central authorities in Beijing to acknowledge the existence of the virus. The Chinese regime’s tendency to secrecy is shared by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which tried to conceal matters, as well. However, the Iranian attempt was not as effective as the Chinese one, and news of the outbreak soon became known to most Iranian citizens. The reason lays in the fact that Iran, although under the control of an authoritarian regime like China, is not as organized as the latter. The truth is that the Iranian regime is a repressive authoritarian regime that is rife with divisions. It imposes only nominal control over society. As for South Korea, which is a capitalist, non-Western, democratic system, it did not rush to obscure the matter, but it was subjected to another obstacle: the extreme liberal insistence on respecting religious diversity. As the epidemic began within a fundamentalist Christian community, the authorities in Seoul felt reluctant to take dramatic measures, such as imposing a quarantine on members of this sect. Finally, the Italian response was overshadowed by deep political divisions that pushed the country into a systematic crisis. It is strange that Rome decided to impose a quarantine on all the regions located to the north of Rimini; namely, all the regions that form the support base for the Northern League Party, which represents a coalition of conservative and separatist groups in parliament. Accordingly, more than a million people fled restricted areas towards the center and South of the country. Worse, there was no control over those who traveled abroad. Carl Schmitt once argued that the task of the state is to deal with exceptional circumstances since ordinary situations are typically self-managed by the citizens. However, the coronavirus seems to show that the modern state is not as adept at handling crises as we have believed. We can only hope that there is some metaphysical entity keeping our world intact on the brink of this global crisis. – Amir Taheri (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)